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You’ve Harvested Your First Wild Turkey… Now What?

By Wade Truong

Photos by Wade Truong

Lucky you—you happened to catch a glimpse of that tom you’ve been working all morning out of the corner of your eye as he slipped quietly through the timber. Or he put on a show and strutted his way towards you across a field gobbling every 20 yards, as your heart pounded so loud you thought he might be able to hear it. Either way, you made a good shot, and now you have a big bird on the ground.

Before you shot your first bird, you asked yourself all the questions: does my calling sound good? Where do I set up? Where is that bird going? Did he see me? Do I need to move or sit tight?

But one question that doesn’t get asked enough is, what do I do after you have a bird on the ground? Being prepared for success is something I preach a lot when mentoring new hunters. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the gear, techniques, and nuances of pursuing any game animal, but being prepared when things do work out is equally important.

With turkeys (and most birds) it’s pretty straightforward. Your first major post-shot decision is whether to pluck or skin the bird.

Plucking vs Skinning

The decision to pluck or skin a bird comes down to how you plan to cook that bird.

I’m a big proponent of plucking most birds I shoot. That being said, I could go either way with turkeys. Turkeys pluck fairly easily because they lack the down feathers of waterfowl that really slow down the process. The benefit of plucking turkeys is you get to work with the skin in the kitchen. That skin is thicker than the skin on their domestic counterparts, but wild turkey skin will help retain some moisture when roasting a whole breast, and the crispy-chewy edges are a treat. However, it does take longer than skinning a bird, and I’ll often end up pulling the skin off after the fact if I’m making turkey nuggets or cutlets. Plucking the bird will give you more options, but if you have no plans to roast a whole breast, skinning will be a simpler option.

A photo of a harvested wild turkey on a table outside, with a man plucking its feathers.

Wade Troung plucking a turkey.

Skinning a turkey is straightforward. Make a cut along the keel bone and pull the skin back. There will be a spongy looking glob at the top end of the breast; just cut that away. This is the turkey’s fat store. This turkey “sponge” will be more prominent earlier in the spring, and as the season wanes, these birds will burn up those calorie stores and the sponge will get smaller and smaller.

Make a cut along both sides of the keel bone and then along the ribs. The breasts pop right off. Pull the skin down along the thighs and legs and remove those cuts by separating the joints.

If you pluck your turkey, you can keep it whole, or break it down like any other poultry. I recommend breaking a turkey down into breasts, tenders, thighs, and legs. All these cuts cook up differently. While the visual of roasting a whole wild turkey is tempting, the dark meat needs some special attention, and is best cooked separately from the breasts.

Note: unlike deer or larger game, it’s very easy to practice taking apart a bird. Go buy some whole chickens from the store and get a handle on how to take the breasts and legs off.

Field Care

Turkey hunting weather ranges from cold enough for you to see your breath, to near heat stroke conditions. This is a major factor in what to do right after you kill that bird. Just like any other uncooked meat, you don’t want that bird to stay warm for too long. If it’s close to refrigerator temperature outside, you have plenty of time. If it’s steamy out, your best bet is to break that bird down as soon as you can and get it cool.

If you have cold weather, hanging the bird for a day or two will make the plucking process a little easier as it tightens up the skin. You could also put the whole bird in your home refrigerator, but a 20-pound bird takes up a lot of space.

A silhouetted image of three wild turkeys hanging in a doorway.

Hanging harvested turkeys in cold weather can make them easier to pluck.

For most hunters, breaking the bird down and getting it in a fridge or on ice will be more practical. I stress “on” ice, not “in” ice. Just like any meat, submerging it in a slurry of ice water will discolor and wash out the flesh. It makes the meat unappetizing looking and less flavorful, and also promotes bacterial growth. Get it cold, but keep it dry.

Use All of the Bird

Game birds of all types tend to get “breasted,” meaning that only the breasts get removed from the animal. Turkey thighs and legs make up a large proportion of the animal, and leaving them out in the field means you are missing out on a whole lot of excellent meat. If you have ever broken down a whole chicken from the grocery store, or carved up a thanksgiving Butterball, taking the legs and thighs off a wild turkey is no different.

Pluck or pull the skin off the thighs and legs and pop the joint at the pelvis. This dark meat will be deep red in color and will be tough compared to a domestic bird. That being said, it will also have more flavor than anything you can find in a store. I recommend using your favorite crockpot recipe for the thighs, and I like to salt and smoke the legs for use in place of smoked ham in beans, stews, and greens.

If you want to utilize the dark meat but don’t want to use your crockpot, you can always debone and grind the meat. Ground turkey is lean, so I recommend adding some fat to the grind, or add some fats when you’re cooking it. Ground turkey is great in tacos, pasta sauces, or made into meatballs.

Other Bits

If you want to make the most of your bird, there are some parts other than the breasts, legs, and thighs that you can use. I like to save the carcass and wings to make stock. The neck is great cured and smoked (just like the legs) for use in braised greens or soups. And if you’re into wobbly bits, the heart is fantastic seared, grilled, or fried. The gizzard makes a great addition to gravy and stews, and wild turkey liver makes a wonderful pâté.

I usually keep the spurs and beard as a memento, but the rest of the feet get added to the stock. In the end, if you want to use as much as you can, the only things you will leave in the field are the guts, head, and some feathers.

Chasing turkeys in the spring is my ultimate obsession. Nothing gets me more fired up than hearing a tom’s gobble get closer and closer. Wild turkeys are also one of my favorites things to work with in the kitchen—wildly different from their store-bought counterparts, these birds are foreign and familiar in a culinary sense. Nothing tastes quite like them, and there’s nothing quite like chasing them around the Commonwealth in the spring.

Wade Truong is a lifelong Virginian and self-taught chef and hunter whose work has been featured in The New York Times and Garden & Gun. To learn more about Wade and his company: Elevated Wild.

  • February 29, 2024